10 December 2014

End of Marbles (4)

There is one, just one, rather interesting argument for the 'uniqueness' of the Acropolis Marbles which rises above the banal and the pathetic. At the risk of being accused of deftly constructing my own Aunt Sally so that I can triumphantly knock Her down, I will attempt a summary of what I understand the thesis to be.

"The art and architecture of Periclean Athens constitute precisely the triumphant and uniquely significant moment of the Classical Period in Greek Art. It soared above the rather wooden Archaic Period which preceded it. It was at its height until the brutally militaristic Macedonian Ascendancy destroyed Athenian democracy and independence. What followed it was simply 'Hellenistic decadence'".

The subjectivism of this attitude is, I would have thought, fairly obvious. Who says that any one Art History 'period' is superior (which is what 'classical' really means) to any other? Personally, I prefer the 'Hellenistic' period (Alexander the Great onwards), both in terms of Art (Pythocritos of Lindos) and Literature (Callimachus); and the continuities which link it to Roman Art and Literature. I am absolutely fascinated by the wonders emerging at this very moment from the soil of Macedonia; and I am still reeling from the enormous loan exhibition of 'new' Hellenistic art and artefacts from Macedonia which the Greek Ministry of Antiquities, with such immensely gracious generosity, sent to the Ashmolean two or three years ago. It is in Royal Macedon that great Palaces were designed and built which were imitated in the palaces of Rome and the Bay of Naples (and in Herod's seaside palace in Palestine, and in the palace of another client king at Fishbourne in Sussex).

Other Greek cities, besides Athens, were great political and cultural centres. Miletus had some 90 colonies ... far more than Athens. It was the birthplace of the Greek philosophical (which is to be taken to include what we would call Scientific) tradition called the 'Milesian School'. It is where Greek 'Town planning' was invented. It was a great city in the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods; the birthplace, indeed, of the architect of Hagia Sophia (surely a much more significant architectural expression of the Hellenic spirit than the Parthenon?). It possessed a very remarkable structure of its own called the 'Market Gate' ... which was dismantled in toto and re-erected in a museum in Berlin. Why don't the Clooneys go and sit on Mrs Merkel's doorstep and demand its 'return'? What's that you say? ... that the site of Miletus is in modern-day Turkey? Well, of course it is. Everybody knows that. 'Hellas' was a very much bigger thing than the limits of the modern Greek Nation State. So what?

Let me explain where the myth of the uniqueness, and the effortless superiority, of Periclean Athens come from. Victorian Schoolmasters. British Imperialism, at its apogee, identified itself with Periclean Athens. Boys were set to read its texts ... Thucydides and Aeschylus and Sophocles and Aristophanes ... and to write prose and verse in Attic Greek of the 'Classical Period' ... you get the idea. That was the moment in Greek History which seemed so uniquely parallel to the grandeur of the high noon of the British Empire. Schoolboys were invited to absorb the moral Virtues held to be embedded in 'Classical Greek Civilisation'. They hurried from reading Xenophon to winning battles on the playing fields of Eton. Play up! Play up! And play the Game!

Just as ... I explained this in the previous part of this series ... I do not see why Greeks need to form their identity in the matrix of the Western European 'Enlightenment', I also fail to understand why some of them seem so helplessly entranced by the arrogant ideology of British Imperialism and bewitched by the fagging-and-flogging culture of the Arnoldian Public School. The World would respect them so much more if, culturally, they would just stand on their own two feet. In conclusion, let me remind you what those Two Feet are.

I hope that the recovery, in our own day, of an understanding of the marvels of the Royal Establishment in Macedonia, will stir up among Greeks proud and confident memories of when Macedon conquered the World ... well, as far as India, anyway ... and planted its culture in the Alexandrias and the Antiochs and Seleucias which crowd all over the maps of the Middle East; and then, intellectually and artistically, took Rome captive. It should remind the Athenians that 'Greece' is not synonymous with 'Athens' ... a very necessary lesson. And I pray for a realisation by its true heirs of how this scintillating civilisation formed a marriage with Byzantine Christianity, resulting in one of the most amazing syntheses the world has ever seen.

Callimachus and the Akathist Hymn! Both infinitely beyond the capacities of any lesser nation!

A henotikon: the BM could loan Athens half a dozen pieces at a time in rotating exhibitions, changing every 5/10 years or so. This would mean that, if Athens decided to break its word and not send one lot back, then, true, London would have lost six pieces, but it would know better than to send any more pieces across. And where London has tiny fragments 'belonging' to a large fragment held in Athens, perhaps they could be sent on semi-permanent loan (and ditto, mutatis mutandis, the other way round). And both the Athens museum, and the Acropolis, should be open to all, free of charge.

Then we could see how the arrangement developed ...

1 comment:

Stephen Barber said...

I also enjoyed the Hellenistic exhibition at the Ashmolean. But I want to put in a word for the archaic period, and in particular for their wonderful pottery.

As for returning art works, I want to put in a word for asking the National Gallery to send back to Siena on permanent loan the three pieces of Duccio's Maesta which they possess. I expect they were acquired legally when the Sienese were foolish enormous to sell them, but they are part of a larger design and belong back with the rest of the work.